01/03/2011 03:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It Is Better to Ask Forgiveness Than to Ask Permission

Huffington Post blogger Larry Strauss reminds me of our school's old-timers who rode out the violence of desegregation in the 1970s and the crack and gang wars of the 1980s. These "Old School" teachers said, "It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission."

After all, did the district ask our permission before closing half of the school for asbestos removal, transferring out numerous teachers before sending us replacements, or assigning up to 127 students to just one of my classes on my first day of teaching neighborhood school students? It was over 100 degrees in my classroom, so I sought out a veteran teacher, borrowed his photocopies of passages in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, took my history class outside and taught in a thin strip of shade.

Neither did they ask forgiveness for adopting a freshman Economics textbook with the appeal of a VCR manual. Rather than use the text's illustrations that were disconnected to any real issues, I found compelling, multidisciplinary graphics of contemporary issues. The principals looked askance at materials borrowed from the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Weekly. In order to teach delayed and instant gratification, which were standards that I was required to cover, I photocopied and censored a passage of Richard Price's brilliant novel Clockers. Even with the most challenging students, the lesson was doubly effective because the reference to our hometown hero, Ralph Ellison.

In this pivotal scene, Rodney, the gang leader, told his young gangsters:

"Every time you make a hundred dollar, you buy a hundred-dollar chain. A (deleted) does that always broke. ... Buy a new car, ain't got money for gas. Charles, how many sneakers you got?

"Charles looked off, lips moving, frowning, then announcing "Twelve."

"Rodney set up straight, taken aback. "How many feet you got? See what I'm sayin'? You all throwin' it away." Rodney reached over and grabbed the chains on Charles' chest. ... "You look like (deleted) Mr. T. ... How (deleted) invisible do you think you are, that you got to have all this (deleted) gold hangin' around your neck just so you could feel like you're bein' seen?"

"I take these (deleted) chains away, are you less of a man?"

"Yeah, well, he a punk then," said a kid named Down.


"He let you take them away from him." Down sounded scared, as if called on in a classroom.

... "You got to start respecting yourself." Rodney was still hammering away ..." (Imperfectly deleted, I learned, so it could be read when held up to the light) that spend it fast as he make it don't believe it's real. Don't believe in hisself ... He got no future 'cause he don't think of no future."

I am glad that I risked that lesson even in the toughest class -- especially in the toughest class. A girl who had continually resisted me volunteered that her family came from the middle class and attended church, but her brother was heavy into gangs. She even brought a copy of the passage home to discuss with her mother.

I was then called on the carpet and prohibited from teaching more "street economics."

I can not imagine what would happen to one of our school's teachers who tried such a lesson today. But neither can I imagine a new teacher taking such a risk today.